What to Say When Someone Tells You They Are Getting/Going Through a Divorce
We haven’t gone out for coffee in forever. I guess we’ve been busy—it’s nice to catch up. She seems a little weird. Every moment seems pregnant. Oh my god, is she pregnant? She can’t be. She would have said something, and she looks so skinny. Too skinny. She’s not eating. She’s never had a problem like that before. At least not that I know of. Something’s definitely wrong. Did I do something? What’s going on?
“Chris and I are getting a divorce.”
The divorce rate today is nearing 50%, and that means you’re going to meet a lot of people who are splitting up. It’s sad to say, but it’s common; things often just don’t work out, and as people grow and change—or not, as the case may be—there are a thousand different reasons couples end up calling it quits.
Someday you’re probably going to find yourself in that coffee shop chair opposite a dear friend, and you’re going to need to get it right. Your friend may be tough, but a wrong word could be all it takes to shatter what’s left of them.
And then there’s the ongoing challenges of the divorce process itself. That wound they shared with you is not going to heal overnight. It’s going to be raw and painful until well after it’s all over, and in the meantime they’ll be hanging on by their fingernails and hoping you’ll keep holding on to their sleeve.
We know how much you care, so we’re going to help you manage that moment. Let’s talk about what to say—and what not to say—when someone tells you they are getting/going through a divorce.
What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You
Wrap your head around that, because these are the rare moments that define friendships and make or break bonds that can last a lifetime.
When someone tells you they are getting a divorce, they are confiding in you. They trust you to be a listener, and they’re allowing you into a very personal and painful space. Frankly, it would be easier not to tell you at all, because being vulnerable comes with a significant risk of being hurt even more.
That’s why “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” is one of the most idiotic clichés in all of human thought. It’s right up there with “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” If you start making false assumptions and drawing inaccurate conclusions about the nature of someone’s divorce, you’re going to be in serious danger of trampling their feelings and irreparably damaging their trust and confidence in you as a friend.
Know what you don’t know, and listen, listen, listen. It’s the first step toward figuring out what the right thing to say will actually be.
Let Them Guide the Conversation
Your friend is going to need to talk. A lot. However, that doesn’t mean they will, particularly at first. They may just tell you over the phone, chat awkwardly for a minute, and then hang up. They may not tell you at all.
It may hurt, but it doesn’t mean they don’t trust you, and it doesn’t mean you’re not their friend. In fact, it probably means exactly the opposite.
Divorce brings out the most complicated emotions and insecurities inside us that usually go completely unnoticed in day-to-day life. Divorce is an abnormal state of affairs (we hope), and it’s critical that you give your friend leeway to manage the conversation on their terms.
Don’t make this about you. Let them dictate the content and pace of the conversation, and be ready when the time is right. Your job is to be a good friend, listen closely, and support.
You can always validate someone’s feelings and revisit the issue later, but once you’ve passed judgment on their situation it’s out there forever. Just don’t.
There are many reasons people get divorced, and all of them are between the two people involved. So some big mistakes were made? Whatever. It happens. We’re all weak, we all fail, and we all do things we wish we hadn’t, but you know who your friend doesn’t need to hear that from when they’re in the middle of a divorce?
That’s not your role in all this. If they ask for your advice, give them the best, most compassionate thoughts you can. Otherwise, be a friend, be a teammate and pick their kids up from school now and again when they’re at the end of their rope, but save the conversations about what they should have done or need to do for your coffee date in the afterlife.
Oh, and don’t forget that reserving judgment extends to their spouse too. Unless you’re gently validating something they’re telling you about how terribly their soon-to-be-ex treated them, most of the iceberg of their relationship is probably still hidden under water. Consider this:
Friend: I’m getting a divorce.
You: I always hated that troll.
Friend: He’s trans.
Finding Empathetic Answers
Divorce is hard, and it can test our friendships as well as our courage and resolve. Being a stable force and a shoulder to cry on is the secret to empowering someone you care about to find their best way forward to a new beginning.
Better Divorce Academy is committed to helping couples get it right when it’s time to part ways, and we definitely know how to handle the conversation—we’ve been there. If you or someone you know is going through a divorce, let us help find the best solutions for families, for finances, and for the future.
Breathe. You’re not alone.